The Electoral Reform Society is a membership organisation governed by a council elected from that membership. While not formally a community organisation, much of our work on sustaining and developing democratic practices has led us to work closely with civil society organisations that are interested in community development, and to partner with local community groups and organisations. We have been testing ways to give collective agency to members of local communities (citizens)
We are grateful to have gathered the experience of working with people across Scotland who are trying out different ways of making decisions in their own places. ERS see its community of interest to be all citizens and those that work towards the aim of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people.
Structural Reform – Executive Summary
A culture of democracy, sustainability and collective caring should be our objective for the development of Scottish Local Governance for all the reason argued below. However, we acknowledge that legislative and structural reform will not alone achieve this.
Big bang changes also bring along their own problems as we saw when the districts where abolished in 1995. The goal of new reform should be for the structures and institutions to gradually transform so that they are supportive and encouraging of the culture we seek to create – rather than institutions being something that make such a culture difficult. Here we share our experience and develop our arguments for reform. We summarise the most concrete suggestions below but wish to emphasise that the structure is not the change itself and the intention of that change must be explained and fully understood by everyone involved.
The existing local authorities should become regional/city authorities with a statutorily-defined remit to provide infrastructure and services to assist the more local units of governance to deliver their plans/vision and meet their defined ‘challenges’. This should also involve all elements of non-acute health services.
A new ‘permissive’ layer of elected ‘development councils’ would be available to any community that met certain criteria and could show popular support. This might mean through mini-publics or through a local vote or both. This council will be statutorily bound to have as a priority delivery of the local plan/vision set by the citizens’ assembly below.
In coming into being a ‘development council’ must establish a standing, annual citizens assembly for that community. Its early sessions to design a community vision/plan for the next three years and then the subsequent annual gatherings for the ‘development council’ to be accountable to the citizens’ assembly on progress on the vision. The citizens’ assembly should be a randomly selected mini-public and selection and process should be highly specified so that it can fulfil requirements of democratic legitimacy. These assemblies must become as much a part of the democratic process as elections and so should be regulated by a new section of the ‘Elections Management Board’.
The purpose of local governance and the new institutions should be clearly defined so that all agencies and citizens are clear about their powers and responsibilities. Setting out these rights could be a focus for a national citizens’ assembly.
Such an Assembly could assess what framework is needed to protect these rights, for instance: community, cooperation, autonomy, security, liberty and so on.
We also feel that the right to local governance should be enshrined constitutionally in some manner. The method for doing so is far from clear but it is important to explore further to safeguard these rights and reforms.
Context – Time and Space
Scottish local governance operates within a very different context from the last time it was reviewed and changed. In 1995 there was no Google, Facebook or smartphones, and John Major’s Government was in power at Westminster. The arrival of a Scottish Parliament was still half a decade away.
It is perhaps a testament to those that operate Scottish Local Government that an institution that was designed in such a different time can still operate with reasonable effectiveness. Nonetheless, it is important to ask if the overall approach to Local Governance still makes senses in such a dramatically changed setting.
The speed of technological and the arising socio-political change is now a reality of our times. The main driver of these changes is the quality and quantity (good and bad) of information and its impact on how people feel about themselves, their communities and the institutions of liberal democracy.
Scottish society in the 1990s was organised around only a handful of possible narratives. The centre – government, media and to lesser extent broad cultural production – told one main story which was largely shared by the population. It served to instil and reinforce trust and confidence of the institutions within the wider population. That this is breaking down creates huge challenges. The decline in trust and belief is a key characteristic: people do not trust traditional leaders or institutions to explain or to lead the way forward, in the way that they might have done in the past.
Political intention, ideology, the personality and party of our representatives all matter, but there is something inbuilt now in the way that our democracy has evolved that has made it operate much more in the interests of some than of others.
‘Oligarchy’ is the default tendency of any political/social system and we either accept that or we remake systems that acknowledge this and build in corrective processes. Failure to do so properly, and the exposure of ‘government for the few’ through new media, has led to a positive rise in political consciousness and a worrying trend in political extremists capitalising on that confusion and anger.
We should explore how to use technology to decrease bureaucracy and help decentralise power and to facilitate the time that citizens have together face to face in real places. This face to face contact is essential. Meeting and debating via social media only and getting news and campaign message from online sources only has stoked the ‘dehumanisation’ of political debate and increased conflict.
Responses through governance
It is vital that some of these developments are addressed by better regulation, policing and enforcement of the mechanics of elections, parties and campaigns, and by the structural reform of our institutions suggested here, so they can catch up with our society.
This is why we are cautiously optimistic that parts of the Scottish Government and Scottish Councils are responding to these pressures for change with this ‘Democracy Matters’ consultation which will feed into the bill on Scottish Local Governance. It is a Bill we hope will help our local institutions of governance transform themselves into ‘the new within the shell of the old’.
We commend the Government for carrying out the consultation in a new way, there was a real effort to involve people. The door is more open than it has ever been in the past. It is important to acknowledge and to have on the table the fact that there always there will be resistance to any calls for those with power to give up any of it. For many, this is almost an instinctive reaction.
Any programme of reform must consider not only what to reform to but also a long-term process of how the reform might be carried out. While the reform in the 90s was implemented over 2 years a period of 3 to 5 years would be a suitable period over which to roll out the reform.
Principles of reform
This review and the subsequent reforms should be viewed as being built on previous work. The great work of the Christie Commissions on public service delivery in 2011 and COSLA’s report from their commission on ‘Strengthening Local Democracy’ have provided us with principles that have come out of an extensive and very involved body of work:
- The principle of sovereignty: democratic power lies with people and communities who give some of that power to governments and local governments, not the other way around
- The principle of subsidiarity: decisions should be taken as close to communities as possible, and local governance must be right shape and form for the people and the places it serves
- The principle of transparency: democratic decisions should be clear and understandable to communities, with clean lines of accountability back to communities
- The principle of participation: all communities must be able to participate in the decision making that affects their lives and their communities
- The principle of spheres not tiers of governance: different parts of the democratic system should have distinct jobs to do that are set out in ‘competencies’, rather than depend on powers being handed down from ‘higher’ levels of governance
- The principle of interdependency: every part of the democratic system must support the others, and none can be, or should seek to be, self-contained and self-sufficient
- The principle of well-being: the purpose of all democracy is to improve opportunities and outcomes for the individuals and communities that empower it
Questions 1 – Our experience of getting involved in decision-making processes that affect local communities.
The Electoral Reform Society has been talking and thinking about a remaking of Scottish Local Democracy for some time now. In 2012 we started Democracy Max – an 18-month process consisting of a representative ‘peoples gathering’, public meetings and expert roundtables which culminated in a detailed report which recommended a range of reforms from media regulation to a citizens second chamber.
Six years on, we are still pushing forward on the main insight from that process: the idea that structures of democracy will always be limited if they are built from the top down. The actual method by which the institutions are designed and made will always result in forms of elite rule if they are elite-driven. One could argue that such an oligarchy is inevitable (Iron Law of Oligarchy) however we can see that rising populist and authoritarian tendencies, groups of ‘left behind’ and ‘left out’ mean that there is far too much top-down, central, control already.
In such conditions, it is possible for one group of elites to point out to left-out parts of the population that another elite is manipulating them against their interests, which is a further and often greater manipulation of that population. These can lead to a fear of the people and an unwillingness to trust them, which can end up in a downward spiral of manipulation and centralised authoritarianism. The strongest response to this is to give people the chance to have themselves or people they know and trust closer to decision making.
While these are worrying developments here and in most Liberal Democracies, there are positive drivers for more democracy as we have discovered in our work and hope to demonstrate here. Scotland is ripe for democratic improvement. The independence referendum seems to have cracked open a source of civic energy that while dissipated somewhat is still sparking around in campaigns and communities across our land. Consciousness has been raised and once you know that activism and agency is possible it’s hard to go back to the soaps and the sofa.
We also have witnessed the creative solutions that people come up with for their own communities. They often have insights and solutions that it would be hard for others to hold or fully understand who are not living with the problem.
In making this submission we are not only sitting at a Laptop writing our policy or opinion. We are of course doing that, but we are also reflecting our experiences over the past few years in which we have actively sought out what people and communities think would make a better Scottish democracy and then experimented in real community setting with the processes and practices that might make that change happen.
To this end, from the time of Democracy Max until now we have undertaken a range of activities:
Deliberative Democracy and ‘Act As If You Own The Place’
We asked community partners to help us organise deliberative community planning events to see if local communities could come together and plan their spatial and social futures together. This was a way of developing methods of better community decision making. Building upon and developing this process we partnered with Coalfields Regeneration Trust to run a series of nine successful deliberative community planning and participative budgeting events across three communities (Cardenden, Bo’ness and Dalmellington). A 2-minute film is available here.